Prof-iles: James Muller, the Richard Gilmore of UAA

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James Muller pursued political science after first being exposed to the subject in college. Muller has been to all 50 state capitol buildings and 150 national parks. Photo credit: Young Kim

In many ways, James Muller is similar to Richard Gilmore from the popular TV show Gilmore Girls. He has an Ivy League education from Harvard, his daughter is finishing her MFA at Yale and he has traveled all over the world. But, unlike Richard Gilmore, Muller has an established career in academia as a professor of political science at UAA. It wasn’t until college that Muller had his first exposure to a politics class, but he was the kind of student who had enough interest in the subject, that he was able to write a 70-page paper on the expansion of the powers of the presidency. In high school, he took so many AP courses that he started as a sophomore at Harvard and had to choose his major right away. Politics runs in his blood; his grandfather was a mayor, and Muller has made a career out of political science.

Despite his political experience, Muller found his home in Anchorage as a professor. As a child, he moved from coast to coast; he lived in California, then the suburbs of Washington D.C; he was in Tennessee for a short stint, then in Germany, Maryland, California again, New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts for 11 years in college and graduate school. His daughter Helen was also educated in a coast-to-coast fashion when she was in sixth grade after her mother, Judith, completed cancer treatment.

“When [Judith] was sitting there doing chemotherapy, I think she was thinking about what she wanted to do after she didn’t have to go through her cancer treatment anymore…and she said she didn’t want to wait till she was retired to get a motor home and go around the country,” Muller said. “When you are sick with cancer you wonder how long you’ll have.”

Instead of waiting for retirement, all three Mullers, with their Welsh corgi, packed up, bought a motor home and decided to tour the country. In seven months’ time, they visited presidential houses, 150 national park sites and around 30 Civil War battlefields.

“What [Judith] wanted to do was sell our house, quit her job, she got me to take a sabbatical, and we bought a motor home. I’d never even been in one… and we went to all 50 states that year in 2004,” Muller said. “We went to all 50 state capitol buildings.”

Instead of being a professor of political science that year, Muller motor home-schooled Helen by taking her to Junior Ranger programs all over the nation. She became nationally renowned for visiting so many of the parks in one year, that Laura Bush the first lady, wrote her a letter congratulating her on her achievement.

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“After the 100th Junior Ranger award she had won that year, the parks started making a fuss over her,” Muller said. “They would radio ahead to the next park and say this amazing kid is coming. She’s done a hundred Junior Ranger programs in one year! The rangers would say aren’t you the girl who’s on the national park website this morning? She learned that if you do something that’s really amazing, and a lot of work, and different from what most people do, people will notice.”

Before he toured the nation for the second time, he toured the world as a White House Fellow. During one two-week period, the fellows toured the Middle East; they went to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Israel and Egypt and did exotic activities like drive tanks and rappel out of helicopters.

“Saudi Arabia was a revelation too because it is such a strange country,” Muller said. “Very few people except those who have jobs there visit…We went to a camel race, and other kinds of things, we met all of these princes. I had to be a presiding fellow at a dinner where one of the dishes was the famous dish of the Nejd, which is the province where the capital Riyadh is. It didn’t taste very good, and I asked someone what it was and they said it was fermented camel’s yogurt with some kind of grain in it.”

After his tenure serving as a White House Fellow, he came back to Anchorage to teach political science. At the time, he said he was excited to come back to Anchorage and explore Alaska.

“After a whole year of writing speeches for the Secretary [of Education] and the Undersecretary, and not having my books, I felt as if I had used up what I knew, even though I learned a lot that year from seeing things up close, I’m sure,” Muller said. “I was really ready to come back and start reading again and be a professor, having students, being able to have discussions about political philosophy, and I was getting really interested in [Winston] Churchill.”

Muller has been teaching in Anchorage for 34 years and he is hoping to finish a book on Churchill’s writings next year. He’s also working on a book on P.G. Wodehouse.